Making affordable housing a community asset

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“What does home mean to you?” Participants were asked to explore that question as they embarked upon a recent bus tour of local affordable housing success stories. Most of us have images or memories we associate with “home.” For some, those images are overwhelmingly positive. Maybe it’s a feeling of safety, the smell of a family meal being prepared, memories of holiday gatherings that take place every year under the roof you call home. When asked about my earliest memories of home, I recalled sunlight illuminating the tiger lilies behind my childhood home. For my seatmate, it was a particular fig tree in her family’s garden.

All of us want a home that is within our budget to provide a sense of security and a foundation for memories, but unfortunately, when someone mentions the words “affordable housing” the images that come up aren’t always accurate. Too often, people hear “substandard housing.” They picture broken windows and peeling paint. But we must not accept poorly-maintained housing as the “de facto” affordable housing stock in our community. The homes featured on the bus tour, ranging from new single-family homes to renovated apartments, clearly demonstrate that affordable housing done right can be an asset to the community.

Affordable housing, after all, is not just one thing: it is a continuum, and if communities want to thrive, they need a variety of options at a range of price points to serve their entire workforce. When we think about housing that is affordable, we’re talking about housing costs that don’t exceed 30 percent of a household’s income. A household paying more than 30 percent of its income is considered cost burdened, and at greater risk of housing instability.

In Cedar Rapids, like most communities, we have both retail clerks and store managers. We have school custodians and school principals. We have certified nursing assistants and cardiologists, manufacturing workers and engineers. We need them all, and they all need housing. Since we don’t all earn the same wage, there are as many definitions of “affordable housing” as there are people. Communities need growth in order to be vibrant, and housing is foundational to recruiting businesses and attracting or retaining the workers they need. That’s why the City’s comprehensive plan, EnvisionCR, includes among its goals “Adopt policies that create choices in housing types and prices throughout the City,” and “Create a city that is affordable and accessible to all members of the community.” It’s also the reason the City worked with public and private sector partners to replace over 1400 housing units since the 2008 flood.

If we want workers and businesses to stay in our community and meet our demand for a variety of amenities and services, housing choice matters. The local barista who hands us our morning latte needs a good place to live, and so does the entrepreneur who owns the coffee shop. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution, but we’re fortunate to have a community of dedicated partners working together to meet housing needs — building a strong foundation for families and neighborhoods.

• Paula Mitchell is housing and redevelopment manager for the City of Cedar Rapids.

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